Rishi Sunak has departed from HS2 plans (Picture: Number10/ Flickr)

Rishi Sunak decided last week that the best place to announce that the HS2 rail line would not go from Birmingham to Manchester was—Manchester. He hoped this will show he is an uncompromising decision-maker. 

He wants to come over as tough on spending and a “change-maker” who is different to previous Tory regimes. The axing of the line led to outrage from corporations, trade unions and some on the left. It’s wrong to defend the extension of HS2, which would have been ­environmentally destructive.

Eco activist Daniel Hooper—known as Swampy—who fought against the project was right to say, “‘It was sold as a green project but it was never going to be green with the amount of carbon it takes to build the thing and with the massive swathe of countryside and ancient woodlands it would have taken out to build it.

And HS2 would also not have transformed transport links in the Midlands and the North. Phase Two of the line would have reduced travel times from Birmingham to Manchester by 41 minutes. But speed on the line isn’t the sole ­problem with Britain’s transport system.

What’s needed is a total reset. There are problems with rail capacity, and there will be more if, as should happen, there is a shift to a truly sustainable system with car ownership and the fossil fuel giants no longer at the heart of policy.

But achieving that would require planning in every part of society. It would need democratic debate about how far people should have to travel to work or school, where houses are available and in what numbers. The environmental and pollution effects would have to be central to these decisions.

None of this is possible with a ­transport system dominated by giant car firms, profit-seeking rail operators, airline companies and a ­government that serves the bosses. A privatised rail service has left rail services on their knees. Train ­cancellations rose to record levels last year, with one in every 25 services failing to run. 

This was before workers in the Aslef and RMT unions began strikes to try and stop the decimation of their pay and conditions caused by greed and privatisation. HS2 was always going to be part of this system and its priorities, not a break from it.

Over 3,000 different companies were involved in the work. Since Phase One began construction in September 2020, the four holders of the largest civil engineering contracts for the project asked for more money over 3,000 times. 

The project is funded by public money, but the Tories and HS2 Ltd are obsessed with secrecy. The New Civil Engineer magazine found in 2020 that 253 companies and public bodies had signed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or gagging orders with HS2 Ltd. 

A high-speed rail line, built within a rational system, could be part of a much more climate-friendly way to travel. For long-distance journeys, such as from Exeter to Glasgow, high-speed rail would be far better than ­domestic flights. 

In March 2016, HS2 bought Stanley Johnson’s (Boris Johnson’s father) London house for £4.4 ­million, £150,000 above the asking price. This delivered up to £2.5 million profit for Johnson. Now HS2 may not go to Euston.

Unions get on wrong train

Trade union leaders reacted with horror to Rishi Sunak’s announcement. That involved ignoring the environmental degradation HS2 is causing, but also making inflated claims for the project.

Aslef leader Mick Whelan said, “HS2 was never only a high-speed rail link. It was meant to make it quicker and easier to travel the length and the breadth of our country and to free up pathways on the East and West Coast main lines for more passenger services and for more freight trains as we move to a carbon neutral future.”

Really? A privatised railway with bosses at war with workers was going to deliver all that? The GMB union produced its habitual nationalist and pro‑boss analysis.

Laurence Turner, the union’s head of research and policy, said, “It’s essential that the planned route is now protected so that a future government can reverse this disastrous decision.”

Is that going to be a demand on Keir Starmer if Labour reaches 10 Downing Street? Surely the key question will be calling for renationalisation, not HS2? The RMT union’s statement was slightly better. It correctly insisted that transport spending should not be a choice limited by Tory spending controls. 

Mick Lynch said, “Public transport investment is not an either-or question. The fact is we will not be able to tackle the climate emergency without encouraging people to use modern, cheap and efficient high-speed rail and hugely expanded local bus services.”

New Tory promises won’t deliver transport we need  

Rishi Sunak promised that the £36 billion meant for the construction of Phase Two of HS2 would be funnelled into developing travel networks across Britain. After facing backlash from within his party, he revealed a 40-page prospectus Network North—Transforming British Transport.

The prospectus was littered with mistakes and confusingly included places that aren’t in the north of England, including Plymouth and Bristol. One part claimed that new funding would ensure the Metrolink tram network in Greater Manchester would be extended to the city’s airport. The Metrolink route to the airport has been open since 2014. 

Quickly after its release, the Tories dialled back some of the plans. Details of a “£100 million mass transit system” in Bristol disappeared overnight. The Tories’ half‑hearted transport plans aren’t the solution to Britain’s crumbling rail system.

It shows why the strikes by Network rail workers, train drivers and workers at train operating companies have been so crucial. Rail lines rely on overtime and last-minute planning because of a lack of staff and cuts. Transport in Britain is in desperate need of proper funding to work for ordinary people. 

After Margaret Thatcher sold off swathes of the publicly owned industry to the rich, including the railways and buses, workers and passengers have suffered. In the last year bus company bosses decided to cut one in ten routes.

Most train companies hiked up prices by 5.9 percent in March of this year. Taking back transport into public ownership has to be the start of improving Britain’s transport network. But socialists must be for an even more radical vision. 

Calls for better transport links, more frequent buses, better accessibility for disabled people and cheaper fares have been utterly ignored by those in charge. Profits are their priority. For a transport system that works for all, workers must take democratic control of their networks so that they can be run in accordance with need.

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